Martin Luther King Jr. and the dignity of the Black Lives Matter network
On this past Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I traveled to a parish in a neighboring town to give a talk on Catholic teaching about racism in light of the racially motivated violence perpetrated on Aug. 12, 2017, in my town of Charlottesville, Va. The morning began with Mass, where the pastor in residence offered a beautiful homily reflecting on Dr. King’s compelling vision of human dignity and exhorting us to see the human person as Christ does: as irreducibly valuable and always worthy of respect. Basking in the warm glow of the homily, parishioners retreated afterward to the church cafeteria for a conversation about race and racism.
The warm glow soon gave way to frustration, as the broad range of perspectives and experiences represented in the room made for a difficult conversation. But the invocation of Dr. King’s legacy in relation to the Christian faith guided our discussion, with participants of different backgrounds often gesturing to him as a beacon of hope and reconciliation in the midst of disagreement.
As a Catholic moral theologian and a woman of color living in Charlottesville, I have been invited to give similar presentations to different church, university and community groups across the country. While one audience is often radically different from the next, I find that concerns for human dignity are central to each one. I make the same theological and moral argument to each group: that racism is a grave sin against the dignity of the human person and so must be resisted in all ways possible by those of us who claim to have faith in Jesus Christ.
"Black lives matter” is a basic theological affirmation that is completely consistent with Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of human dignity.
The issues of race and racism in the United States are often portrayed as battlefields in the larger culture wars, with partisans on each side set in their ways and unwilling to enter into community—or communion—with those who disagree with them. But throughout all my talks and presentations, I have never encountered an audience who had difficulty affirming universal human dignity as a guiding principle for thinking about race. Our admiration for Dr. King is not accidental. We are inspired by his vision of universal dignity and see it as an important guide for common life in our society. The enduring legacy of Dr. King’s vision thus offers a moral common ground for working toward racial justice.
I have found that this common ground erodes quickly, however, when the discussion reaches the subject of the role of two contemporary advocates for racial justice: the Black Lives Matter network and the Movement for Black Lives coalition. I have heard from parishioners, students and community members with misgivings about the character of the modern racial justice movement. Some are concerned that it is too radical to make a positive contribution to the current conversation about race. Some disapprove of protest as a means of addressing racial injustice, arguing that it is either inconvenient or ineffective. Some go so far as to equate these groups with the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis.
No matter how many times I hear it, this latter view of Black Lives Matter and, more broadly, the Movement for Black Lives, always catches me off-guard. First, it is important to note the organizational distinctions between these phenomena: Groups like the Ku Klux Klan are hierarchically structured networks, while the Movement for Black Lives is a coalition of loosely affiliated groups with different origins and leadership (including the Black Lives Matter network).
Second, they could not be more different politically or theologically from white supremacist organizations. Whereas groups like the K.K.K. formed to assert racial superiority through intimidation and violence, including the abhorrent public lynching of black people, Black Lives Matter emerged in response to the alarming rates of shooting deaths of unarmed black people. White supremacist groups are racially segregated and persecute anyone who falls outside of their definition of racial purity (Jews, Muslims and all nonwhite people); Black Lives Matter brings together people from many religions and ethnicities who seek to affirm the dignity of black life. And while I see no logical basis of comparison between these groups, I find that the affirmation that “black lives matter” is a basic theological affirmation that is completely consistent with Dr. King’s vision of human dignity that we commemorate and celebrate each January.
I am aware that this is a provocative claim for many Catholics. In my travels to speak about race and racism to different parish groups, I am confronted by fellow Catholics who believe that saying “black lives matter” means that other lives do not matter. Others argue that saying “black lives matter” implies that the lives of law enforcement officers do not matter. Yet Christians who affirm universal human dignity in the abstract but cannot make the more specific affirmation that black lives matter hold the truth of the Gospel at a distance and do not allow it to make a genuine difference in our personal or social interactions. On the contrary, the affirmation of the dignity and sanctity of black lives gives flesh to the church’s theological teaching on human dignity, making it real in the life of the church, the world and in our own lives.
Martin Luther King Jr. has been upheld as the paragon of racial justice activism, offering a broadly compelling account of human dignity grounded in his vision of the beloved community. But 50 years after his assassination, this vision is often manipulated or taken out of context in ways that water down the radical nature of his dream or minimize his life of protest and active solidarity that ended with the violence of a bullet aimed at silencing his message. It is this same vision of human dignity, however, that calls us to re-examine Dr. King’s moral legacy for us today. Specifically, his affirmation of human dignity compels Catholics to declare that black lives matter and to align our church with an affirmation of the sanctity of black life.
Dignity in a Catholic Key
For Catholics, the claim that “black lives matter” must be read within the larger context of our theological tradition. In Genesis, we see that God created humankind in his image, affirming universal human dignity (1:27). The prophets elaborate upon this theme, denouncing those who “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted away” (Amos 2:7). Jesus echoes Genesis and the prophets, blessing those who honor and care for “the least of these” and cursing those who do not (Mt 25).
Similarly, Catholic social teaching links our human dignity with the care for the most vulnerable. The dignity of the human person as expressed in our special concern for the oppressed is the moral cornerstone at the foundation of all Catholic teachings about who we are and how we are to interact with other people and as a society. But in the United States, black women, men and children are subject to lasting racism that undermines their dignity on a daily basis. What we do to honor black lives is a measure of how deeply we hold the scriptural and theological claim of universal human dignity.
For Catholics, the virtue of solidarity is integrally linked to advocating for the lives of those who are in distress, precisely because each person is a living image of God. As Pope St. John Paul II teaches in “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis,” solidarity “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (No. 38).
If human beings are created in the image of God, then the hatred of any human person, including the hatred or mistreatment of another person based on his or her race, is an affront to that image. But this is only the baseline of a Christian response to racism. The more difficult, more demanding and more Christlike response to racism requires a positive love of and enduring solidarity with those who have been subject to racial injustice, especially those neighbors whose lives are being threatened by hatred and violence. More than a general, abstract affirmation that racism is wrong or undesirable for society, Catholic faith requires acknowledgment of specific persons and communities who are being threatened and harmed by enduring structures of anti-blackness and a resurgent cultural acceptability of racist ideas and actions. In short, Catholic faith demands that we proclaim that black lives matter.
The 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination occurs during a time of renewed social upheaval concerning race and racism. Martin Luther King Day in 2018 took on even greater cultural and political significance against the dramatic backdrop of simmering political tensions over immigration policy and race relations. On Jan. 12, President Trump allegedly referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries” during a meeting with congressional leaders on immigration. Mere hours later, he gave a speech in celebration of the Martin Luther King holiday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. In these remarks, the president referred to Dr. King as a “great American hero” before extolling the civil rights icon’s clear-eyed view of human dignity, which “stirred the hearts of our people to recognize the dignity written in every human soul.” Whether this alignment is mere coincidence or divine providence, the anniversary puts the signs of the times under a microscope in a renewed search for wisdom on how we might forge solidarity that enacts Dr. King’s vision of dignity that resists racial injustice.
The 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination occurs during a time of renewed social upheaval concerning race and racism.
Many critics of Mr. Trump share concerns that his disrespectful language regarding particular countries and people is a sign of an abiding lack of respect for human dignity. This disrespect cannot simply be covered over by paeans to Dr. King’s legacy. Further, the painful contradiction between referring to entire nations as piles of excrement before touting the dignity of every human person illustrates the malleability of the language of human dignity as employed in our current times.
On one hand, human dignity offers an easy moral refrain that underscores a truth shared by many different religious, philosophical and political traditions. Dignity language lies at the heart of human rights discourse, where it helps us make the claim to universal rights plausible. On the other hand, dignity language is also easily scrubbed of particular moral significance. Given its broad recognition, the concept can evade ethical interrogation that is essential to specifying and clarifying its meaning.
The lack of specification means that the same dignity language can be used as a rhetorical device by opposing sides in moral conflicts, including in defense of decidedly inhumane causes such as euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. And the slippery character of dignity language means that it can be used by those who do not understand it or take it seriously.
The centrality of the defense of human dignity to Dr. King’s work can be seen throughout his speeches and writings. “God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race,” he said at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1961, “in the creation of a society where all men can live together as brothers, where every man will respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.”
But Dr. King’s words about human dignity, so prolific and poetic, have been particularly susceptible to being severed from their original context. Viewers of Super Bowl LII in early February saw a glaring example of this when an advertisement used portions of Dr. King’s sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” to sell trucks. The commercial wrenched specific passages about human excellence from Dr. King’s forceful critique of rampant consumerism and the human desire to always be better than others.
This past Martin Luther King Day, a social media artist sought to recontextualize Dr. King’s words in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by placing them against the backdrop of images of protests for racial justice. One of the photos uses a photo of Dr. King being booked after an arrest along with the text of his reflection on the moral duty to disobey unjust laws, inspired by his agreement with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Other images depict contemporary protesters against racial injustice, including images of Black Lives Matter activists, framed by Martin Luther King Jr.’s words arguing for the necessity of nonviolent direct action as a way of making injustice and inhumanity evident in society.
The message of the project is clear: Dr. King’s understanding of justice is rooted in a specific vision and ethical program associated with the defense of human dignity and specifically of black dignity. This defense of human dignity is grounded in the Christian faith and demands affirmation of the fundamental theological truth: that black lives matter to God.
‘A Love That Chooses Justice’
In their introduction to a recent collection of essays, Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, scholars Andrew Prevot and Vincent W. Lloyd offer a clear theological statement of the fundamental sacredness of black life that has so often been denied:
Black Lives Matter. This is not only shorthand for a political program, it is also an affirmation of a truth that the world denies. Black women and men, girls and boys, young and old, straight and queer, northern and southern, and immigrant and biracial—black humanity in all its variety—is beautiful. Is dignified. Is sacred. Loves. Is loved.
In a similar vein, the writer and speaker Austin Channing Brown travels the country preaching and teaching about racial justice and how it relates to Christian faith. Her forthcoming book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, explores her journey as a black woman living in the United States. She argues for the beauty and dignity of blackness that has yet to be fully and genuinely embraced by the church and the world. Ms. Channing Brown’s affirmation of black lives is rooted in a theological affirmation of human dignity: “We demand the right to live as fully human.” This right is based on the beauty, dignity and sanctity of black life that has so often been denied in our world.
Austin Channing Brown’s affirmation of black lives is rooted in a theological affirmation of human dignity: “We demand the right to live as fully human.”
Ms. Channing Brown argues that the affirmation of universal human dignity must then lead to an abiding love for black lives. This is a love that moves beyond pity for another’s experience of injustice toward the defense of that person’s dignity. This is what Ms. Channing Brown calls “a love that chooses justice.” It is a compassionate love that moves the human heart to suffer with another. It is “a love that has no tolerance for hate, no excuses for racist decisions, no contentment in the status quo.” This is a love that weeps over the dead body of a black child lying in the street and proclaims, without qualification, that his life matters.
According to Ms. Channing Brown, many of us in the church do not always act like we believe the affirmation that black lives matter is a Gospel imperative. Instead, we live in denial of the festering wounds of our past and the grotesque violence of our present.
“We live as if the ghosts of the past will snatch us if we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she says, “So instead we walk around the valley.” Acknowledging the heavy cost of racism and anti-blackness is not easy, but it is a necessary step in affirming universal human dignity.
“Is it not the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate truth and inspire transformation?” Ms. Channing Brown asks. It is the Holy Spirit that offers hope for restored relationships that pursue justice, mercy and compassionate love and that honor the imago Dei at the heart of human identity.
But to affirm that black lives matter is only the first of many steps of embodying faithful witness to the unassailable truth of God-given human dignity. How can the affirmation of the sanctity of black lives direct our striving for racial justice? Are there concrete steps we can take as individuals and as a church?
Liturgy and prayer are the foundations of any Catholic response to racial injustice. The Eucharist draws the Body of Christ together, making the church visible in its unity even amid profound difference. The theologian M. Shawn Copeland describes the Eucharist as a “re-membering of the Body of Christ” that resists violence done to black bodies. The Eucharist is the originating act of solidarity, one in which we are united with each other through Christ.
Liturgy and prayer are the foundations of any Catholic response to racial injustice.
Liturgy and prayer are also necessary for anchoring dialogue about racial injustice in love. The parish is a distinctive and crucial context for having honest and challenging discussions about racial injustice. Here participants can share stories, ask questions, express concerns and confess shortcomings. Convened in the spirit of prayer, participants are invited to humble themselves before the Lord (Jm 4:10) to have a conversation about racial injustice in the spirit of love. Some parishes have the capacity to bring together Catholics from different racial, cultural, generational and political perspectives. While other parishes may lack this kind of diversity, their dioceses can help to organize broader segments of the church to engage in this kind of dialogue.
What about those times when dialogue alone proves insufficient for affirming the fundamental dignity of black lives? “Fortunately,” says Ms. Channing Brown, “dialogue isn’t the only way to participate in the creative work of justice and reconciliation.” She suggests other actions that can help us to live out our theology: reading books about racial injustice, making art that envisions a world where black women and men are treated in accord with their God-given dignity, and building communities committed to human flourishing.
While some find protest to be too radical or socially disruptive, marching with those whose lives are treated as if they do not matter is a vital aspect of Christian solidarity.
Finally, Ms. Channing Brown emphasizes the centrality of public protest to affirming black dignity. Protest is the public face of the demand for dignity, expressing specific social and political claims linked to this moral affirmation. These claims include voting rights, education, employment, housing and equal treatment under the law. While some find protest to be too radical or socially disruptive, marching with those whose lives are treated as if they do not matter is a vital aspect of Christian solidarity.
We cannot forget that protest was a centerpiece of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian witness, the embodied manifestation of his belief that all people are created equal. He marched for the truth for which he was ultimately killed: that black lives should matter to us because they already matter to God.
Correction: Due to an error in editing, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described Black Lives Matter as a hierarchically structured network, which it is not.